Supreme Court debate along Lincoln Highway
“Number two on the sides and three on top — a little fade.”
Matthew Schuring is cutting hair at Lincoln Way Barbershop in Massillon, Ohio, which his father ran for 30 years until he died a decade ago. How’s business been?
“Definitely slowed down. It’s not terrible. I don’t have any threat of going out of business. Especially the really older guys — 75, 80, 90-year-old guys — they’re hiding out. You find guys stretching haircuts out a little bit longer than what they used to” — a wave of guilt crashes over me with my mangy mop. Should I get a cut here? He keeps trimming and talking.
“Guys don’t know if they’re gonna have the money to spend, so everybody’s pinchin’ pennies.” Well, not everyone.
“If you have a 401(k) — they seem like they’re happier than hell. They’ve got money coming in hand over fist. My retired clientele — they’re making more money than I am, being retired! They’re doin’ good. It’s the younger guys. The non-union guys. They seem to be probably hurting more than anyone.”
Besides Covid, what do guys talk about when they’re in the chair?
“Politics, obviously. Most of my customers swing more Right. Hearin’ a lot of guys sayin’ that they used be Democrats and they’re kinda feelin’ left behind by the Democrats — just think they’re gettin’ too radical. And they just don’t feel like the Democratic Party wants to represent them any more. I feel the same way a little bit. I used to be not strictly Democrat — used to mix my ticket a little bit — but I leant way more Left, and I kinda feel like they left me behind. Once Obamacare kicked in — they weren’t doin’ me any favours as a small-business owner. I was just starting up back then, and I couldn’t afford outrageous bills for healthcare.”
Not all his customers lean Right, but, “There aren’t too many guys who aren’t sure which way they’re voting. … Everybody has their opinion and everybody feels that they’re right.”
In South Bend, Indiana, Christopher Columbus no longer greets students and staff who enter the main building at the University of Notre Dame, its golden dome glistening on this sunny autumn day. Tapestries cover the Columbus murals I saw when I attended college here 25 years ago, a decision made last year by its president, Father John Jenkins, who concluded that its celebration of Columbus — intended to inspire marginalised Catholic immigrants — distorted history.
Two flights up, and two days before one of the university’s law professors, Amy Coney Barrett, would be nominated for the US Supreme Court, I sat down with Jenkins and asked him about the role of faith in American political life. He began with the murals.
“In the 1880s, there was a strong anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment in this country, and [the Columbus murals] were painted as a way of saying, ‘Look, the first European immigrant to this country was a Catholic.’ Then the ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’” — the words carved into an entrance at the university’s basilica — “that was World War I, kind of a way of saying, ‘We Catholics can be patriots, too, while we’re faithful to our religion.’”
Across the quad stands Washington Hall — another example of the university saying: See, we’re Americans, too. “So when you look at the history of America and the history of Notre Dame and Catholics, this tension exists. There’s this sort of fidelity to this transcendent faith, and this patriotism and fidelity to America. But I do think that this nation, if I look at its history, it was deeply shaped by Christian faith broadly, and the values that arise from that.”
But what happens when Christian values conflict, among Christians themselves and among people of other faiths — and atheists and agnostics? What then?
“It’s the challenge of democracy, isn’t it? You have a set of commitments. Moral commitments, religious commitments. You’re trying to bring them into dialogue with a democratic process that makes decisions that shape our lives together. … Whatever moral commitments anyone has, you could ask that question, ‘Well, why bring your personal moral commitments into the common [arena]?’ Well, how can you not? How can we make any decision on healthcare, on social security, on poverty programmes, without a set of moral commitments?”
The likely nomination of Barrett looms over us, and I ask him if we may see a return of anti-Catholic sentiment if much of the country views the Catholic majority on the Supreme Court as imposing its religious beliefs on the rest of the country, particularly on the issue of abortion.
“I honestly don’t understand why a deep conviction about individual autonomy, which is behind a lot of the pro-choice arguments, why that’s OK. That’s not a problem — but a conviction about the dignity of every person, even in the womb, is deeply problematic and should be disqualified on religious grounds. I honestly don’t understand the argument there.”
It doesn’t seem to me that any argument should be disqualified on religious grounds, but as former New York governor Mario Cuomo said in a 1984 speech at Notre Dame, “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.”
Given Notre Dame’s roots as a champion of a marginalised religious minority, should the Catholic experience with Protestant power lead to greater forbearance today, now that Catholics occupy some of the highest offices in the land?
“I’m a big believer that the intrusion of government into religion should be minimal. I wouldn’t stand up in front of any legislature or political group and say, ‘Well, this is Catholic belief. You all have to believe that.’ You have to give the arguments for it that are persuasive to the whole group.”
But what happens when the majority isn’t persuaded?
The next day I meet April Lidinsky, a volunteer at Whole Woman’s Health on the Lincoln Highway, a few miles from campus and the only abortion provider in northern Indiana. Opening the clinic was a years-long struggle against groups that tried to block it, and it remains in litigation with the state of Indiana.
Today, a handful of protesters, young and old, women and men, stand outside protesting, or attempting to speak with the women leaving the clinic. April’s role as a volunteer is to help patients enter and exit the facility feeling safe and secure. She’s a professor of women and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend, and a mother of two daughters.
“We know that women have terminated pregnancies from the beginning of recorded time, we know that it will continue. Our task is to provide a social context in which women can exert the control that they need to determine the course of their life.” The clinic is there not to push abortion, but “to help a woman reflect. And they want people to feel empowered by the decision that they have made”.
When April helped organise the 2017 South Bend women’s march, some pro-life women in the community asked if they could attend. “And I said, ‘Absolutely. This is our march. You want to be part of it, show up.’ So they did.” Afterward, she invited two of the women to her house. “They were very gracious and we had this wonderful conversation. I came in with all sorts of assumptions and said some version of, ‘Well, surely we all agree that South Bend would be better if fewer abortions were needed, [and] we know that means access to birth control and ramped-up sex ed.’ And they were both like, ‘Oh, April, honey.’ It did not occur to me that very well-educated women would not believe in birth control.”
She realised: “They are not interested in fewer abortions, they are interested in abolition in the same way [that] I feel about the death penalty. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Let’s get together and make it slightly less terrible.’ No, I’m opposed. It is immoral, it’s unethical to me. And so that’s where I try to understand them. They do believe it’s murder, and I mean ... I don’t think it’s killing a baby, but it is stopping a life process certainly the way miscarriages do all the time.”
They learnt that they had “very little common ground except that we enjoyed each other a lot” — and that was enough to write an op-ed together for the local newspaper describing their experience, and encouraging more people to join them: “Meeting face to face, we must listen carefully, prioritising the relationship above the message. … This activism involves personal risk; it requires openness to admitting gaps in our knowledge, and our need for self-education. However, it can benefit every area of politics, regarding every difficult and deeply felt issue facing us today. We recommend this work, which is full of pleasure and rich with possibility.”
The main drag in Little Village, 26th Street, is Chicago’s second-busiest shopping district after the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue. It’s also the beating heart of the city’s Mexican community. Zeke Flores, born in the neighbourhood, is giving me a tour. His father came from Mexico in the 1970s without papers and found work as a carpenter. His mother worked the graveyard shift at a factory. They sent Zeke to Catholic school where he found mentors, but also a taste of what would come — the same treatment that led Notre Dame to put up those murals.
“I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and I remember, growing up, some of my teachers saying, ‘If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.’ And I would scratch my head and say, ‘If I’m in France or Italy, some of the most privileged children spoke several languages. Over here it’s like, ‘If you want to speak … go back to … ‘ I would constantly scratch my head.”
He graduated from DePaul University and landed an entry-level accounting job with Arthur Andersen that took him around the world. “Whether it was in São Paulo, Brazil, or whether it was in Argentina or Budapest, Hungary or London, they viewed me as an American businessman outside of the country. But when I come here” — back home — “I’m a Mexican businessman. That makes you scratch your head.”
He was high-flying until the Enron scandal sent Arthur Andersen into bankruptcy. In 2006, he shifted into commercial real estate and invested his savings in a project that looked promising, until the Great Recession came. He lost his equity but shifted again, starting an airport concession business that was doing well, until Covid-19 hit. His business dropped 80 per cent, and while he is slowly climbing back, the industry may take years to recover. Is he thinking about shifting again?
“Oh, yes — I already have. I became a board member of a private-equity firm that’s focused on the Latino food space.” Business is booming — with Covid, people are ordering more food for the house — and he says he will be fine no matter what comes to pass. But he sees himself in the neighbourhood children.
“I just see the fear of some of the kids that are in schools as I go to some of our elementary schools because they’re afraid that when they get home their parents might be deported. … And I see the social, emotional impact that these kids are having — this fear has changed their brain.”
It makes you scratch your head.
Muslim immigrants in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, built America’s first mosque, now called the Mother Mosque, in 1934. “At that time,” says Imam Taha Tawil, who emigrated from Jerusalem in 1983, “it was one faith, one race. And if you were not in line, you would lose everything. So they had to melt” into the great cauldron of American life. The original imam wore a suit with a bow tie because that’s what the local ministers wore. See, we’re Americans, too.
Imam Tawil is giving me a tour of the small building, with its social room downstairs and worship space upstairs. In the 1990s, he says, diversity came to be celebrated by politicians and companies, and now he is a police department chaplain and cofounder of an inter-religious council. But in recent years, things have taken a turn. “After Mr Trump win the election, things start to be different.” How so? “People, they want to go back to the old time — one race, one denomination. In Des Moines, Iowa — not here — people sent letters of threat and hate to the Islamic centres.”
A local minister reached out to the imam. “The minister said, ‘We don’t like what we hear. We want to come and support Muslims. And the Mother is the good place that represents Islam in America.’ I said, ‘Come on!’ So all the people from Iowa, many, many people came and showed support.” They stood around the Mother Mosque as a human shield, showing that, “Hey — this is our heritage. This is our legacy. And show that we are the one.”
He extols American freedom and pluralism, and I ask him the same question I put to Father Jenkins: what should legislatures do when religious values conflict?
“I feel that religion is very important, but at the same time there should be some kind of management where secular values are also upheld — without religion stepping in and putting them out of the picture. No, we should co-operate and co-ordinate, and that’s basically the spirit of a true faith — to co-operate and co-ordinate. As we want our freedom, so the others want their freedoms. So in order to stay together, we really need to manage [differences] … and try to balance them.”
Compromise borne of conversation. It’s hard, frustrating, painful and often dispiriting work. But the danger isn’t that we fail. The danger is that we stop trying.
•This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads”